Across a millennium-long history of foreign occupation, Vietnam has been the site of diverse cultural influence including the importation of Chinese and French plant species and garden types that were adapted to a tropical climate and local spatial practices. Though the contemporary concept of a garden (vườn in Vietnamese ) was introduced quite recently, Huế has a long association with gardens — from the traditional “garden house” to royal gardens that make up the Nguyễn tomb complexes. My project will investigate how the colonial period brought this historic Vietnamese garden city into conversation with French technical and theoretical developments around the planning of landscape in cities.
Given Huế’s low density and abundance of open spaces, the French were able to appropriate existing green spaces in order to replicate modern European sensibilities of urban living and an accessible public realm. Unlike the administrative capital of Hà Nội or the hill station of Đà Lạt, formal colonial planning influenced by the European garden city movement or modern landscape architecture played a less direct role in Huế. However, many principles including protection of natural landscapes and vistas, development of gardens, and establishment of functional open spaces are evident in the city’s development. Adapting to the existing infrastructure the city, such history includes development of the Hương Giang riverfront for recreation, and the restoration of tombs and temples as secular public destinations. These places remain some of Huế’s central tourist attractions today.
My research responds to visual and textual representations of Huế gardens through state and popular media including press and tourist guides. I will investigate the history of public works during the colonial period as they articulate strategies for greening within the city.
During the colonial period, there were also significant scientific and economic developments to scale domestic horticultural practices throughout the region. While much of this effort was focused on rural reform, Huế city was the site of planting experiments and an economic museum that showcased the colony’s botanical richness. Part of my research this year attempts to trace the botanical heritage of Huế, particularly those species and varieties that were originally introduced as gifts to the royal court and elite families during the Nguyễn era, and those introduced later by the French.
As today its UNESCO designation places Huế among a constellation of global sites that engage common questions about cultural heritage preservation and tourism development, I hope this project can further contextualize and illustrate those challenges for the living and dynamic landscapes that make up the city.